Likely the first of many posts on this – as a fairly hardcore centrist (arguably a stupid concept in itself, that, if you ask most people today) with a dogmatic refusal to align myself to any one political party this is of particular interest. Because, the theory partially goes, it’s the dominance of political centrism that is the cause of our current woes.
Be warned – this is a long one…
All this sparked late and drunk one Friday night by this on the eurocrisis and centrist politics by Paul Mason, Economics Editor of the BBC’s Newsnight, which struck me as an excellent starting point for a general hypothesis on Europe’s failure to cope. I’ll quote liberally before following up:
“The Greek crisis – though an extreme case – provides a textbook in which the Euro-elites can read their future. We are not there yet, but if events in the euro-zone continue their downward spiral this is how it will be.
“We now have to imagine a Europe in which France is run by Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, or by a socialist president under heavy leftist influence; in which Spain is bankrupt; in which UKIP, the Dutch Freedom Party and the True Finns call the shots in coalitions where traditional centre-rightists have been pushed towards the nationalist fringe.
“…Throughout the crisis, the Euro elite has suffered from the same inability to imagine failure that led to August 1914. Even days before the outbreak of war, it was thought impossible because the consequences would end the system, and everybody would be the loser. As the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig commented: our common optimism betrayed us.
“…it is distasteful for the European centre to discuss the catastrophes that created it. But this ‘social silence’ lies at the heart of the problem: it is what allows the same politician to pop up on TV arguing that Greek exit from the euro is ‘impossible’ because of the consequences to the eurozone, then a year later propose it as ‘inevitable’ because of the consequences of avoiding it.”
There’s a very good reason for Europe being dominated, for the last couple of decades continent-wide and the last few in the west, by the centre-right and centre-left. It’s because Europe has plenty of experience of the far-right and far-left, which are both as bad as each other. Dictatorships and extremists both fascist and communist have held power in more parts of Europe, and all easily within living memory.
Generational shifts lead to forgotten histories
Now the Second World War generation is in its late 80s and 90s. The generation that can remember the all-pervading fear of the early years of the Cold War, the Berlin Blockade, creation of the Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis, is all 60+. Although many may still participate in politics at the voting booth, few are actively involved in running Europe for the first time since the end of the War.
It is no coincidence that the beginnings of the EU lie in the early-mid 1950s. The EU’s founders had all lived through both World Wars, and could see a new, nuclear confrontation just around the corner. They saw the danger of the political extremes – many of them having lived under fascism, living next door to communism, and all having seen the results of nationalistic fervour.
I’ve always assumed that the end of active political participation of the Second World War generations would lead to major changes in the way the EU functions, primarily because so much of how the EU works has been based on German war guilt – Bonn then Berlin accepting often extremely poor terms out of a sense of obligation after the horrors the country inflicted during the 30s and 40s. (Horrors that, incidentally, many of the German leaders and civil servants involved in the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community and European Economic Community were at least complicit in, if not directly involved with. See Tony Judt’s excellent Postwar for more.)
What I’d forgotten to factor in, however, was the change in attitude of the *other* European countries after that generation handed over political power. And this is, perhaps, the more important concern.
The lessons of history
All of which sparks a near irresistable urge to pull out that classic George Santayana quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”.
Germany knows more of the *true* horrors of fascism than any European country. Because it was Germans who carried out the atrocities that so horrify the rest of us – and who knows Germans better than Germans? They know better than anyone the true lesson we should all have taken from the rise of the Nazis: that the people who carried out the Holocaust were not monsters; they were just people. Ordinary, everyday people, who everyone alive in Germany today has passed on the street countless times. The Nazis were *popular*. Wildly so.
And the same (to a different extent) goes for the formerly Communist east – an horrific system built upon fear which led to the deaths of more millions than even the Nazis managed in which ordinary people again became complicit, reporting their neighbours to the authorities out of a desperate desire for minor perks or simply to avoid persecution themselves.
The banality of evil
The 20th century’s horrors were not something exceptional – they were something ordinary. This is the *true* horror – and this lesson is poorly taught in Europe today. Hannah Arendt (who coined the phrase “banality of evil” for her book on Eichmann‘s trial) tried, and was attacked for her pains – because no one wants to accept that they too could, given the right circumstances, participate in a Holocaust. Studies like the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment have shown her basic premise to be broadly true – even though that too has been attacked by those who want to believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity.
Humanity is not fundamentally good – it is fundamentally self-interested.
The focus on the battles and the Holocaust, on the Hitlers and the Stalins, on the vast numbers of dead and the sufferings of the persecuted, the gulags and the ghettos – all diverts attention from where the true horrors lie. The quiet suburban houses, the lines of diligent factory workers, the postmen, the bakers, the doctors and nurses, the teachers, the lawyers, the politicians and the civil servants who calmly went along with it all and, when told to commit atrocities, went along with it – because it was easier to just roll with it than to resist. “We were just following orders.”
“We were just following orders” is the most chilling phrase in Europe’s history. “We,” not “I” – no personal, individual responsibility taken. “Just” as if it were nothing important. “Following orders” – accepting, not questioning authority. And the unspoken assumption: “if I didn’t follow orders, it would have been me being persecuted” – my needs are more important than those of others; it’s better for others to suffer immensely than it is for me to risk suffering even slightly.
The horror of the Holocaust isn’t the people who were killed, it is the people who were doing the killing. They were just like you and me.
“From age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different”
This is the same attitude we’re seeing in Europe today, as outlined in my last post on the current continental-scale game of chicken going on as seemingly everyone on the continent wants the people of some other country to suffer instead of them, even if “only” financially.
At the same time the political extremes have been reviving, the far-right and far-left doing better than they have in decades across multiple European countries, from Golden Dawn and Syriza in Greece to Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France. The big fear focused on by most of the media is the rise of the far-right, due to that side’s eternal association with the evil of Nazism (and propensity for ostentation and thuggishness that makes them more likely to produce good footage and photographs) – but the far-left has been seeing concurrent if more subtle resurgence across many parts of the EU.
The commonality? A desire to blame someone else for the problems being faced – be it foreigners or big business – and to try to shift those problems on to someone else (kick out foreigners we’ll be fine versus penalise bankers we’ll be fine), rather than to accept any level of personal responsibility for the situation, or to propose any genuinely practical, long-term solutions rather than short-term feel-good knee-jerk reactions. (Yes, I know it’s more complicated than that and this is a slightly unfair summary of both groups’ positions, but this post is getting long enough as it is…)
It’s all pretty much exactly what we saw happen during the 20s and 30s with the rise of fascism and communism in response to the Great Depression only (thankfully) as yet on a rather smaller scale. And it’s all been allowed to happen by a constant refusal to listen to the lessons of the past – by the deliberate marginalisation of extremist views, the refusal to allow fascists to share public platforms with mainstream parties, the banning of Holocaust denialists.
All this contributes to a sense that these extremists are coming up with fresh new ideas, rather than recycling old ones that have been proven time and again to be catastrophic failures.
Being sensible isn’t sexy
And with the shift to the extremes, the traditional European parties of the centre are gradually becoming abandoned, as much through complacency and falling turnout as active adoption of alternatives.
Centrist politics are by their nature based on pragmatic compromise – and as such rarely manage to completely please anyone. Because of this, the centre is not an exciting place to be. Being sensible and pragmatic isn’t sexy. Nice guys don’t get the girl. And making compromises leads to accusations of betrayal from your most fervent supporters.
Meanwhile, although a good chunk of the population will lie in the political centre by default, centrist politicians can’t rely on their votes – because the reason a majority of the population can be dubbed centrist is because they don’t care enough about the differences between the alternatives on offer, or they don’t care enough to form opinions on most issues, and so don’t bother voting at all.
Centrism breeds apathy, which leads to stagnation through lack of legitimacy, which leads to a desire for radical change, which leads to the extremes seeming desirable. And the marginalisation of the extremes that has been the major constant of European politics since the War further means that everyone starts to forget just why we all turned away from the extremes towards the centre in the first place.
The times people *actively* vote for centrist parties are when they remember that the extremes are both dangerous and don’t work. (And let’s not kid ourselves that there’s really *that* much difference between pretty much any of the mainstream parties in Europe, no matter how much they may self-identify with right or left, and no matter how much their opponents may accuse them of extremist policies. They’re all more or less centrist in comparison with the true extremes.)
The problem Europe is facing is that it’s been more or less a generation – if not more – since most European countries saw genuine extremists in power. Western Europe ditched its last dictatorships more than 30 years ago, Eastern Europe (bar Belarus) shook off Communism more than 20 years ago. That’s more than long enough to forget just how bad things were, which means it’s long enough for the extremes to seem attractive again.
The trouble with teleology / the problem with predestination / the fallacy of fate
And then there’s the added problem of the way history has been poorly taught. It’s not just the false focus on the horrors of atrocities rather than the ordinariness of the people carrying out those atrocities – it’s also the all-pervading belief in the march of progress that seems to dominate even the most intelligent of Western thinkers. It’s deeply rooted in the Christian tradition (“God moves in mysterious ways” / the ongoing belief in Divine Providence / predestination), and is an incredibly easy assumption to fall into from the perspective of a centrally-heated 21st century flat with clean running water, flushing loo, fridge, television, microwave and wifi when looking back at pretty much any past period of history.
Because pretty much everything has mostly seems to have been getting better in Europe and the West for most of the last several centuries, there’s a constant assumption that they will continue to get better. And because of this assumption, a lot of people tend to think that “progress” is inevitable – and as such that they don’t really have to do anything to help it on its way.
Complacency leads to catastrophe
“It’ll all work out in the end” is dangerous, lazy, all too common thinking – and infinitely more so when it’s the attitude of the politicians who are meant to be running things. It heightens the short-termism inherent in any democratic political system, and magnifies the potential negative impact of long-term issues by leaving everything to the last minute and ignoring the details.
This has been the one constant of the ongoing eurocrisis – the failure to act through a belief first that the worst can’t possibly happen so there’s no need to do anything, and then through the self-fulfilling belief that it’s too late to do anything.
This is precisely the attitude that led to the First World War. It’s in evidence again now in the EU – and in the international community’s response to the situation in Syria (which so closely mirrors the attitude of the international community to the situation in Yugoslavia 20 years ago as to be almost funny, if it weren’t so tragic).
Everyone believes we’ve learned the lessons of history and are now all far too sensible to make the same mistakes as our forebears. Everyone fails to realise that our forebears all thought exactly the same thing.
History repeats itself
And so the cycle seems to be coming round to a crisis point once again. The lessons have been forgotten as they are every generation or two, and we appear to be heading towards one of those shocks that seems periodically needed to remind us of the attractiveness of the centre ground, of compromise, of pragmatism. Mankind seems to need to experience extremism directly from time to time to remember why extremism doesn’t work.
But it’s not too late. It’s never too late to see the error of one’s ways and seek compromise. The only thing that prevents it is a combination of pride / not wanting to be seen to back down and an assumption of inevitability / the belief that events have to run their course.
The true lesson of history should be that events don’t have a course. Events are not sentient. There is no guiding force. Nothing is predestined. But a belief in a course leads mankind to time and again follow a path that no one truly wants to take. And that path almost inevitably (see the irony!) leads to disaster.
History only repeats itself because we let it. My hope is that this time we can avoid the kind of crisis that has been needed in the past to recover the kind of passionate centrism that led to the great aspirations of those who, following both the First and Second World Wars, attempted to set up the grand multi-nation coalitions that were designed to prevent all these mistakes being repeated once again.
The League of Nations failed, and disaster followed. It’s not too late to prevent the failure of its successor organisations like the European Union and United Nations, even though both – with the eurozone crisis for the EU and Syria crisis for the UN – seem on the brink.
But to avoid failure, someone needs to back down. And that, for politicians, is always the hardest thing to do.